Thursday, July 5, 2012

Another Ben Harper Concert Experience

A little while ago, I had my own Ben Harper love-fest and dedicated three posts in a row to his lyrics, music, and overall talent. I didn't expect to write about him again for a while, but last night I had an unexpected chance to catch his performance at the PNE Ampitheatre in Vancouver. Usually when I get tickets to a Harper show, there are months of waiting and anticipation and excitement. I get very anxious to see performers I love play live. This time around, I only found out that I was going a couple of days before, so there wasn't a lot of time for the idea to sink in. It's all about knowing people in this society, having connections and being generous whenever you can. I know Guy Dudeman, who works with a guy who's wife can score free tickets to PNE related shows. So not only did I get to see Ben Harper play his music, it didn't cost me any money, which is always a great feeling.

In my previous Ben Harper post, I went into detail about my personal experiences with his music catalogue and his live shows. So here, I'll keep it simple and just share my thoughts about this particular performance. The first handful of songs featured just Ben, his voice, and his acoustic guitar. Typically, I like a show to start off strong and loud, with the slower acoustic tunes coming later on. Ben went against my preference and started slow and emotional, opening with 'She's Only Happy in the Sun'. His voice was amazing and, as always, he sang his heart out. Eventually, the back-up band came out and plugged in, and the show picked up and rocked out. They played old favourites like 'Better Way' and 'Diamonds on the Inside', a few songs from the new album, such as 'Spilling Faith/Get There From Here' and 'Don't Give Up on Me Now', and played a couple songs that I haven't had the pleasure of seeing live, 'Please Me Like You Want To' and 'Suzie Blue'. Ben also played pretty much every sad song in his collection, including 'Forever', 'Walk Away', 'Amen Omen', 'Waiting for an Angel' and 'Another Lonely Day'. The mood on stage shifted quite a bit throughout the set, keeping the crowd entertained. The one song I was waiting for, 'Lay There and Hate Me', wasn't played this time around. As Ben said on stage, the more albums you have, the harder it is to make a set list that pleases everyone. I still enjoyed the songs that they did play and I'm confident that I'll see 'Lay There' played live again one day.

During the song 'Glory and Consequence', the band broke into a classic Pearl Jam song, 'Jeremy', sampling the original tune while also putting their own twist to the sound. I know that Ben is a great friend of Pearl Jam's and they've played together a lot, but I just wasn't expecting him to bust out a Pearl Jam song, it was a very nice surprise. It was amazing to see Ben join Pearl Jam to sing 'Indifference' at their Rogers Arena show. I hope to see those two musical forces collaborate again some day.  About three quarters into the show, Ben once again surprised me by bringing out the ukulele-playing opener, Tom Freund, and singing 'Here Comes the Sun' as a tribute to George Harrison. I'm a casual fan of the Beatles and I've been a fan of this song for a while. It was a bummer that my girl, ChinaCat Sunflower, couldn't be there to witness the special cover, because she loves that song.

Aside from the varied and crowd-pleasing set list, the highlight of the show was Ben's between-song monologues and crowd interaction. The first three times I saw Ben, he was touring with Relentless 7 and didn't do much talking at all. Last time, at Malkin Bowl, I saw him come out of his shell and become a natural storyteller and crowd-conversationalist. This time, he showed a comfort on stage that most musicians would die to have. He truly loves being up there and truly appreciates his fans. Near the beginning of the show, he had an honest question for us: How do we know his music? He acknowledged that he isn't played much on the radio and is amazed that anybody shows up to his live shows at all. It's always been a mystery to me, why more popular rock radio stations don't embrace Ben, but I'm sure there's behind-the-scenes business politics that have an affect on that. He also told us that, as easy as he may make it look, he still gets crippling stage fright every time he plays for us, terrified he'll somehow let us down. This sort of honesty allows us to see the man behind the music and is a special moment for any fan. He also mentioned that his mama told him to stop cussing on stage so much, and since it was an all-ages show, he'd be extra careful not to let his dirty mouth ruin anyone's time.

During 'Walk Away', with just him and a guitar, he paused to politely say (paraphrased): 'I've played a lot of shows, too many to count, or I've lost count, and I make every one count, but I have never heard a cat-call that loud in my life! And usually I don't mind, but it's coming up through my mike and it's all I can hear. So how about we try this again, from the top, but with no cat call?'. The crowd, myself included, loved this moment. He managed to control a wild crowd member while still staying respectful and humourous. There are always going to be the concert jack-asses, but for the most part, this audience was well-behaved and fun. Being an all-ages show, attached to the PNE, the security presence was pretty heavy, so no one had the chance to really get out of hand. And I suspect that Ben was asked not to play the crowd-pleasing 'Burn One Down', though many people had their joints ready and waiting for this song. But it never happened, maybe next time.

Overall, it was another amazing Ben Harper performance. I wouldn't be afraid to criticize him if I had to, I'm not a totally blind fan-boy, but he just keeps impressing me every time. Music is so much more than a time waster or background noise, when it's played by a master who truly understands his craft, it becomes an experience that connects every one. Hearing it is one thing, but standing 20 feet away from the musical idol who's creating these wonderful sounds, it's one of my favourite aspects of being alive. My next concert will be Sublime (well, kind of) and Daniel Wesley at Deer Lake Park, one of my favourite venues to see live music. I'm sure I'll write about it when the time comes, and in the meantime, throw on some Ben Harper and enjoy.


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